Muhammad Ali and his refusal to enter the United States draft in 1966 has become part of the boxing icon’s folklore. After a 1967 conviction, Ali endured nearly four years of inactivity before the United States Supreme Court ruled in his favor in 1971.
The case, “Clay v. United States,” upheld his conscientious objector status which supported his religious and personal reasons for not joining America in the Vietnam War. Ali filed for the status in Louisville in 1966, but the draft board denied his application.
Ali initially failed a series of entry exams which made him ineligible but those standards were lowered. Ali’s famous quip, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” and his rising status in the Black nationalist group The Nation of Islam added to the sensationalism of his case. Ali legally relocated to Houston, Texas to apply for status as a Muslim minister, which was also denied by the courts.
On April 28, 1967, Ali appeared for his induction into the U.S. Armed Forces but refused to answer the call. At the time, Ali was the WBA Heavyweight champion and was stripped of his New York State Athletic Commission license and his title. Ali was indicted by a federal grand jury and convicted. He appealed the conviction and continued to work for his objector status. The case eventually made its way to the High Court in 1971.
In just over two months, the all-male Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously in Ali’s favor that the government never fully explained why he was denied his objector status. Thurgood Marshall, the lone Black justice, did not weigh in on the 8-0 decision because he served as the U.S. Solicitor General when Ali’s case opened in 1967.
Ali was able to resume his stellar boxing career in 1970, continuing a career that included his legendary battles with Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Leon Spinks.
In 2013, HBO released a film depicting the behind-the-scenes happenings of Ali’s case. Danny Glover starred in the role of Justice Marshall.